When you experience a painful surprise, Jesus is there with you. He will reorient you to what’s true here and now and help you to see that your road will also end in glorious redemption.
When I was in high school, I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring with a friend. We knew absolutely nothing about the film, including the key detail that it was based on a book divided into three volumes. The cinematography and costumes were impressive and engaging, but over the course of the movie, we felt somewhat overwhelmed by the number of characters and struggled to follow the complex storyline. The problem really came as we were approaching the two-and-a-half-hour mark. I checked my watch and thought to myself, “This story doesn’t seem anywhere close to wrapping up.” The band of travelers that had set out for Mordor began to split up, and suddenly Frodo and Sam were standing atop a mountain, eyeing their destination…in the far distance. Soon, the screen faded to black, and the credits began to roll.
We sat there in the dark, stunned and dumbfounded. “What in the world…?” “What just happened?” Our incredulity quickly turned into annoyance. “That was the worst…movie…ever!” “I can’t believe I wasted three hours of my life on that!” We fumed as we exited the theater, vowing that if a sequel was forthcoming, we would certainly never watch it.
Twenty years have passed and I still ponder: Why were we so upset? The intensity of our response was almost comical! I assume it’s because we had signed up for a particular experience: an escape from our stressful world for a few hours during which we would vicariously enjoy a happy ending. What we got—after patiently wading through a long, confusing movie—was a cliffhanger that came out of nowhere. It was both a painful surprise and surprisingly painful. It was like we had asked “for a fish, [and received] a serpent” (Matt 7:10).
I know this is kind of a silly story to use here. I recount it because I have seen a similar formula play out many times: something unexpected and unwelcome occurs, and you are stunned by the pain. The most painful surprises are the ones you never see coming. I’m talking about those moments when you find yourself in shock, saying to yourself, “This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to be like this!” The breakup you never wanted and never saw coming. Walking into your boss’s office hoping for a promotion and leaving his office without a job.